The Brilliant World of Octavia Butler
For a long time, I figured there are some genres I outright don’t like. Take science fiction. I just do not enjoy watching or reading science fiction movies and books. I attempted to look up a few SF stories from acclaimed lit magazines, and my eyes crossed themselves out of sheer despair.
It took me a while to realise that actually, I like some science fiction. What I don’t like are the racial and gender imbalances which are present within the genre. Science fiction narratives are filled with white male perspectives. Men of colour exist mostly as comic relief sidekicks. Women of colour are relegated to the sidelines as love interests but never developed into fully-fleshed-out characters in their own right. It’s exhausting to consume such a mass of single-perspective media – so I simply don’t.
And then I stumbled on Octavia Butler. I’ve mentioned her work before, in a discussion of the white privilege inherent in dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale. In her Earthseed series, Butler turned this typical arc on its head by presenting a Black woman’s journey through the rise and fall of a dystopian society. It was refreshing even as it chilled me. Butler’s novels were packed with people of colour. They touched on our histories of discrimination, of lopsided power dynamics and the degradation of nonwhite women. The hellish society she constructed felt real, not like the cardboard campfire scary-story aura of Atwood’s novels.
Butler wasn’t primarily a dystopian author, though. Butler wrote mostly science fiction and fantasy. My introduction to her work actually came years before I even knew about Earthseed, in the form of a slender time-travel novel called Kindred. Time-travel is one genre of science fiction which I’d love to love – but good works of time-travel fiction are few and far. Most of them are written from white perspectives which outright ignore the hardships inherent in being a person of colour in the eras to which the main characters travel. For these authors, discrimination is a nuisance to discuss, so they just don’t. But for writers like Octavia Butler, it’s a reality, something which cannot and should not be dismissed. Kindred is set partially in the 1970s and partially in the antebellum South. It does not shy away from exploring some of the very darkest parts of American history: viewpoints which are too often swept under a rug of moonlight and magnolias, and overshadowed by glitzier, prettier, whiter stories.
I bought Kindred recently, along with another one of Butler’s science fiction novels: Wild Seed, which weaves traditional Nigerian mythology with themes of genetic engineering. I’m excited to read them. I think more people should.